Remembering Ed Martin

I stopped by Bethlehem last week to have my last look at Martin Tower.  The next time I visit it won’t be there.  As the implosion of the iconic landmark approaches, I thought we should take a moment to look back at the man who it was named after.

I got to know Edmund Martin in 1980 when I married into the family, and knew him the rest of his life.  He was a charming man, a man who loved golf and fishing.  He had a pretty wide streak of temper, but was tremendously loyal to his “people,” the company he spent his life working for, and his community.  His impact on the Lehigh Valley, largely forgotten today, was enormous.

When Ed Martin became President of “the Steel” in 1960, and then also Chairman in 1964, it was clear that the corporation needed a new headquarters.  There was strong pressure from many on the board of directors to move the headquarters to New York City.  But Ed was adamant that Bethlehem Steel should remain headquartered in Bethlehem, a city he had grown to love.  Plans were begun for the construction of a landmark headquarters that would be the tallest building in the Lehigh Valley.  The decades of the 70s and 80s would have been drastically different if Steel had moved its headquarters.  Literally hundreds of executives and their families would have moved out of the Valley, and those rough decades (immortalized in Billy Joel’s song) would have been far more depressing.

Part of keeping the headquarters and administration in Bethlehem was making sure that Bethlehem was a great place to live.  Downtown Bethlehem was not so pretty in those days.  The Moravian Industrial Area along the Monocacy Creek was an ugly automobile junkyard.  Ed and his wife Frances (a tiny but energetic lady better known to friends as “Mighty Mouse”) were instrumental in the efforts for historic preservation and cleaning up the eyesore behind the Hotel Bethlehem.   He was a board member of Historic Bethlehem, served as leader of the Committee for Greater Bethlehem, and was a member of the Bethlehem Area Foundation.

Ed Martin was a CEO of another era, a time when the top brass made perhaps thirty times what a line worker made – not 600 times.  He had worked his way up in the company, starting not quite at the bottom, but in a pretty menial job as a machinist.  He would have viewed the obscene CEO salaries of today as representing disloyalty to the workers and the company.  It’s forgotten today that one of his first actions when taking over as president was to reduce the salaries of the top executives – he actually made more as VP than he did as president.  Many Steel employees called his economies “Martinizing.”

Edmund F. Martin inside the Bethlehem Steel blast furnace in 1964.

In 1963, Lehigh University recognized Ed Martin for “distinguished service to the welfare and progress” of the community; in 1980, Mayor Paul Marcincin honored him as a “community leader who has inspired support for the preservation of Bethlehem’s history.”

In other local involvements, he was a trustee of Lehigh University and St. Luke’s Hospital.  His influence beyond the Lehigh Valley was broad.  He served on the Board of Directors of the Morgan Guaranty Trust Co. of New York; a trustee of the National Safety Council, and the United States Council of the International Chamber of Commerce.  Sweden made him Knight Commander of the Royal Order of the North Star, while Liberia awarded him Grand Band of the Order of the Star of Africa and Brazil recognized him with the order Knight Commander of the Southern Cross.

The plans for the new headquarters were nothing if not ambitious; originally, two towers were envisioned.  Designed by architect Haines Lundberg Waehler, the tower was built by George A. Fuller Construction Co. of New York, the same company that built the Flatiron Building, the CBS Building, and Rockefeller Center.   The innovative “plus sign” design allowed many more executives to have a corner office.   The framework was completed in 1969 and there was a halt in construction for a couple of years.  The building was completed in 1973, when it was named in honor of Ed, who had retired at that point.

After his retirement from Steel in 1970, Ed remained very active in civic affairs.  He died at home in 1993, and did not live to see the bankruptcy and dissolution of the company he had led and loved.

I have followed the meandering tale of what would happen to Martin Tower closely; and while it presented significant challenges, none were insurmountable.  As a current resident of the Winston-Salem, NC area, I have seen several historic structures here that were far more challenging successfully repurposed and preserved.   The Reynolds Building, rife with lead and asbestos and lacking any modern safety features, has been successfully and profitably repurposed as a luxury hotel and condominium.  The unique mid-century design of Martin Tower deserved such attention.

It is a shame that owners Lewis Ronca and Norton Herrick did not have the vision, drive, and determination that Ed Martin showed in saving Bethlehem’s older historic buildings, and then exhibited in building the tower that would bear his name.  Following the implosion on May 19th, Martin Tower will be the dust of history, to be replaced with inconceivably boring vanilla commercial development that could be in a suburb of Dallas or Charlotte or somewhere in Peculiar, Missouri.  Bethlehem will have lost its most visible and recognizable landmark, an iconic architectural achievement which could have served the community for generations to come.


  • The Rev. John Jackman is a Moravian pastor, author, and filmmaker. He lived in Bethlehem from 1977-1982.

The Refiner’s Fire

This morning I preached on Malachi 3:1-20, a passage made famous to moderns by the aria in Handel’s The Messiah:

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.

Listen to the aria:
This video is a recording of Mark Wesley Brax, 23, of Columbia, S.C. who died tragically in an auto accident in Ripley County, Indiana on April 14, 2012.  He was a student at the University of Cincinnati.

But as with a great many Old Testament prophecies, we are quick to ignore the call for justice that follows:

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.

If I were to ask the average man or woman on the street how this Old Testament judgment applies to our world today, most of the working people would be quick to draw a connection to the evisceration of the middle class by the super-wealthy.  This is a very real part of the “major fail” trajectory of our nation, hastened by the sad access the super-wealthy have to manipulate laws, regulation, and control the media.

Consider for a moment these graphs, which are based on easily verified data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Over the last thirty years, the super-wealthy have found a variety of ways to use their connections, influence, and power to game the system, to create an environment where they can corner the market on money.

In the same year that corporations have announced record profits, they are still seeking to cut back on basic benefits and wages for the average worker, begging fictional poverty and inevitable market forces.  But these are not inevitable at all; they are artificially created by the very people whom they benefit.  The strategy of the last couple of decades has been to bear down on the average worker, to cut benefits, pensions, and wages so that enormous profits can be taken by vulture capitalists and market manipulators.  The amazing thing to me is that these folks, with their stranglehold on the media, have been able to convince so many “rank-and-file” of the fundamental lie that if the super-wealthy are not allowed to have everything they want, the jobs will go away.  They have perfected the art of the spin, of playing on fears, of distracting with Honey Boo-Boo.

This is fundamentally a structure imposed by the methodology of Wall Street, which demands artificial increases in share price from publicly traded companies in a manner which most economists will readily admit is unsustainable – and which is based on a completely amoral and short-sighted philosophy.  One CEO I used to work with had come to the conclusion over a decade ago that the only way to run an ethical company in the 21st century was to keep it private; publicly traded companies were automatically subject to a system that was fundamentally amoral and in its practical application became immoral.  When we play this game and participate in this system without challenging its “winner-take-all” crony capital rules, we continue to further a system that God has outlined for judgment.  Again from Malachi:

I will be swift to bear witness… against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

I do not believe in Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.”  But I do believe that God judges our nation, and in my read of the Scriptures I do not think God’s judgment is based (as some say) on a couple of isolated passages in Deuteronomy or on whether or not life begins at conception, an idea which the Bible does not actually support at all.  Instead, if we count the number of statements made by the prophets, we will be judged instead on our treatment of the poor, the downtrodden, the powerless, the widow, the orphan.

How that judgment will come I cannot say.  It may come through the natural process of labor rising in numbers against oppression, as happened a century ago at the end of the “Golden Age.”  It may come through the ultimate failure of an economy and political system that has long since lost touch with ethics and sustainability.  The collapse of the economy in 2008 may only be a warning shot; and the continuing inability of our politicians to behave like rational adults instead of posturing bullies does not bode well for our nation.

In a recent Washington Post editorial, Ruth Marcus reminded us that the originally temporary tax cuts currently being argued over were created prior to 9/11 because there was a projected budget surplus!  Now that we are dealing with massive deficits, that fact has been conveniently forgotten and we are so in love with low taxes that we will invent new and spurious reasons why the temporary measure must stay in place long after it was intended to expire, and even longer after it had outlived its original intent.  When 9/11 happened and the nation decided (whether rightly or wrongly) to go to war, I was asking then, “Where is the war tax?”  How were we going to pay for the massively expensive war?  More tax cuts and more plastic at the mall?  I ask those who were alive in World War II to tell their children stories about War Bonds, to explain rationing, to remind us how the war against fascism was paid for sixty years ago – by pulling together, by sacrifice, by hard work.  Anyone today own any war bonds?  Nope, I didn’t think so!  Whether you were in favor of the longest duration war America has ever fought or against it, one thing is sure: it was really expensive and we passed the cost off to our children rather than shouldering the burden ourselves.

Another lesson from history: capitalists today would do well to read up on the period from 1895 to 1930, for they will catch a prediction of what will happen if the poor and the middle class are squeezed harder while the überclass continues to revel publicly in more than Oriental splendor.  People have forgotten that there were bombings, riots, blood spilled.  There is only so much that the common worker in a supposedly democratic society will put up with before rebelling.  We are not far away from repeats of incidents like the bombing of the LA Times in 1910.  As a Moravian pacifist, I always oppose such violence, but I recognize that when people are pushed too far, violence will happen.  I‘d love to see it not happen!

The Conservatives are right: the deficit is a looming monster which will destroy us.  But their willingness to fall on their swords in defense of continued tax cuts for the wealthiest betrays that they aren’t really that concerned about the deficit, only about “keeping theirs.”  The Liberals are right: we can’t let the economy be balanced on the backs of the poorest while the rich jet off to check on their bank balances in the Cayman Islands.  But their unwillingness to confront the deficit and reveals a lack of understanding that the current system of entitlements is unsustainable.

Most Americans recognize that the truth is somewhere in the middle.  A society that continues to live on borrowed time, money, and environmental damage is not a Biblical society at all.  The nasty fundamentalist Christian “hot-button” issues of the last thirty years ignore the genuine, clear clarion call of the Bible to sustainable, responsible life that does not leave our children and grandchildren with a ruined planet and financial burdens of unpaid debt.



Can We Talk?

Can we talk?  I guess not. Having a conversation with anyone about nearly anything these days is nearly impossible. Even with good friends.

Look, I’m not a political animal. I do not start with party politics and go from there. I’m interested in issues, and would love to talk about the critical issues we have in our nation today. I start from my faith, from the teachings of Jesus, and I move on to logic and meaning. But every discussion I have these days immediately turns into spin-doctor bumper sticker sloganeering, no matter how hard I work to prevent that. If I question Obama, I’m a right-wingnut. If I call Romney on an issue or point out the problems with Ryan’s Ayn Rand-inspired budget, I’m a raving liberal reactionary.

It’s like trying to drive a car that has a RIGHT-LEFT toggle switch instead of a steering wheel. 

It’s like trying to drive a car that has a RIGHT-LEFT toggle switch instead of a steering wheel. I don’t care how good a driver you are, or how good you are at operating a WII remote, you’re going to end up in one ditch or another…because reality us much more subtle than the black-and-white extremists want to paint it. And the issues we face are way more complex than either party wants to admit. But worse, the parties are fiddling while Rome burns, if you’ll pardon the anachronism – since fiddles weren’t invented until centuries after Nero. And both seem to be driven mostly by big donors, not issues.

Guess what? Politicians tell fibs to get elected. Right now, both huge and fabulously expensive machines are cranked up to do one thing and one thing only: win. They are not actually in the business of solving the nation’s problems, at least not right now.

So what’s my option? Ron Paul? I’m afraid you’ll have to give me a break! While Ron Paul is good at being self-consistent, I don’t think his ideas actually work in the real world.

How can we find solutions that we can all live with if we can’t even stay friends on Facebook?

How can we solve the very daunting issues facing our nation if the default mode of communication is shouting? How can we find solutions that we can all live with if we can’t even stay friends on Facebook? We live in a very divided, polarized nation, driven by an entire industry that make a lot of money by fanning the partisan flames. But here’s a news flash: the “other side” (whichever side that might be from your point of view) is not going away after the election. If one side “wins” by a couple of percentage points, folks who felt that they lost the election (the other 49%) will still be there, just as whipped up, just as convinced that the wrong side won. And here’s part two of the news flash: we still have to live in the same country with one another. Both sides behave as if a victory means that the “other side” is going to evaporate or slink away quietly. Any rational person knows that isn’t going to happen. That’s why after the 2008 election I voiced the opinion that it was really unwise for Nancy Pelosi to gloat when taking the gavel. We need to learn how to live with one another, not play out more sticking it in the eye of the other guys.

So how do we do that? It starts with listening to the other side without demonizing them. And that means really listening, not just pretending to listen. It means abandoning the “my way or the highway” Rambo approach that has become so popular (and electable) in recent years. And it starts at home: that means YOU need to stop participating in the shallow bumper-sticker, name-calling demonization of the other side and find a way to have a real discussion with someone on the other side.

Call me a cynic, but I’m not holding my breath for some great wave of reasonable behavior to sweep over the nation. I’m afraid that we haven’t had enough of a jolt for that to happen.

More people need to do some reading on the history of the Great Depression. The depths of the Depression didn’t really happen in 1929, that’s just when it started. That was only the first shock. The ineffective efforts of the last “successful businessman” to run for President, Herbert Hoover, resulted in a worsening of the economy until it reached its depths in late 1932. The drastic actions needed to reverse the trend were not taken until unemployment had topped 25% in the US. And even then, when Roosevelt and the Congress thought they could relax measures a bit, they helped create a second recession in 1937. Most historians and economists believe that it was World War II that brought the US out of the cycle.

What will it take to jolt us out of our divisive bickering? I’m afraid that it will take something far worse than we’ve already been through, and sadly the partisan gridlock we continue to experience is just the ticket to set up that “something far worse.”

"Blame the Other Party"


Interpreting the Bible, Part 2

Jesus is the Lens

In my last post, I mentioned Dr. Craig Atwood’s comment that for Moravians, “Jesus is the lens,” the lens through which we view and interpret all of the Bible and theology. For us, Jesus is the greatest revelation of the nature of God, and His words, actions, and sacrifice give us a better “window” into the heart of the Maker than any prophecy, any law, any Psalm.

The problem that is posed for the intellectually and spiritually honest person is that the Bibles is a very complex book: the Old Testament spans centuries, changes in culture, and circumstances of the Israelites. It incorporates Hebrew storytelling and verbal tradition, combines inspiring Psalms with tedious genealogies, and places profound visions of the Kingdom of God right next to the gritty violence and destruction of the ancient world.

Frankly, it is not actually possible to interpret every part of the Bible literally and pretend that sections don’t contradict one another. OK, it is apparently quite easy for some people, but they do this through an intellectually dishonest mental gymnastic that I can’t do. They are like the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland:

“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

I believe that God gave use brains for a reason, and He expects us to use them. Believing silly things and pretending that self-contradictory things are compatible isn’t faith, it’s just foolishness. So how do we understand some of the difficult texts in the Old Testament that seem to order violence and cruelty, or which seem devoid of the compassion and mercy and grace so profoundly exhibited in Jesus’ actionas and life?

You can list for yourself some of the “clobber” verses currently being bandied about on hot-button issues. Though we ought to discuss them, they don’t actually serve as good examples for how to have the discussion, because the topics are fraught with such a deep level of emotion and burdened with ponderous baggage. So it’s better to select other problematical passages that aren’t the current “hot buttons” for discussion.

Take for example Deuteronomy 21:18-21:

If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.

Now, I think most normal Christians today would have a serious problem with this Mitzvot. You would find agreement among the Taliban and some radical tribal Muslims in certain parts of the world, but I think most Muslims would be horrified at seriously applying this passage, as well.

So here’s the question, using Jesus as the “lens:”

How do we interpret this passage in light of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son, where he clearly draws a picture of a defiant son, a glutton and a drunkard who gambles away his father’s fortune? Jesus goes to great lengths to make clear that the father receives him back with grace and forgiveness even before the son has a chance to say anything; the father certainly has not been waiting at the edge of town with a bunch of friends with rocks. The parable teaches us of the patience of the Heavenly Father, who waits for us with bountiful compassion rather than stones and condemnation.

How you answer this question is very revealing of how honest you are willing to be about conflicting passages in the Bible, and how much you understand of the grace-filled message of Christ.

How you answer this question is very revealing of just how honest you are willing to be about conflicting passages in the Bible, and how much you understand of the grace-filled message of Christ.

For myself, I answer this question by first acknowledging honestly that there is a conflict between the command in Deuteronomy and the mercy exhibited by Christ. Pretending that there is no conflict here is simply a fib. And in understanding the teachings of Jesus, I simply must side with the “Jesus version” of God rather than the “tribal justice” version represented in the Deuteronomy passage.

So, does this mean that I am simply throwing out Deuteronomy? No. In this case, I may just be realizing that the rule was handed down in a different time, when these were a persecuted tribal people wandering in the desert, and such rules may have been necessary for their time and for the primitive level of spiritual understanding that they had.

When it’s a tossup between a passage in Deuteronomy or Leviticus and the clear teachings of Jesus, I’ll go with the teachings of Jesus every time. I don’t have to have a perfect explanation about why the Deuteronomy passage was necessary, or even if it was what God intended or only what the Israelites understood at the time.

Incidentally, the email correspondent whose initial query prompted these posts thought that there was no problem with applying the Deuteronomy passage literally, and stoning the disobedient son. In fact, he said “I think God is just and His instructions are the most loving way to solve the issue.” Just kill the kid.  A response so utterly devoid of compassion left me breathless and saddened, and it seemed pretty much time to terminate the discussion. However, we should understand that there are folks out there whose view of God is so warped that they truly see no problem here: and this is just the mentality that resulted in the burning of John Hus at the stake.

Those of us who come from a tradition of those who were persecuted, whose books were burned, have a problem today with Puritans who are so convinced of their own self-righteousness that they see no problem eliminating the rights of others, or even putting them to death, in the name of their vengeful God. But this is not the God that I meet in Jesus Christ, and I fear that these folks do not understand that they have so inverted good and evil that, like the scribes in Mark 3, say “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”

Maybe we’ll revisit this topic in future posts!

Interpreting the Bible, Part 1

Recently, I received what I hoped was a serious inquiry asking “What Moravian Church doctrine/logic do you use to set the parameters for what biblical theology is accepted and what is up for debate?”

Unfortunately, like many others the inquiry was not honest but merely a fishing expedition for a “hot button” argument. But the question itself is a very important one, and I thought I would use it as the starting point for a post here. Because really the question is “How do we responsibly decide how to apply or interpret passages from the Bible that seem contradictory to the teachings of Jesus.” The Rev. Dr. Craig Atwood (Associate Professor of Moravian Theology and Ministry at Moravian Theological Seminary and Director of the Center for Moravian Studies) weighed in on the conversation and I will share some of his input.

NOTE: As it happens, our Faith and Order Commission has recently published a document that addresses this very question,and it is now available on the web. Look for GUIDING PRINCIPLES OF BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION on this page:

For the Moravian Church as a whole, there is not a simple and pre-packaged response that completely answers the question in a doctrinal or set way. We are a “non-doctrinal” church and are historically suspicious of institutional doctrine, which in many denominations is the result of a fairly complex process of institutional reasoning, compromise, and reaction which is then presented as being nearly equal with the Scriptures when enforced. This is exactly the process that has produced terrible division and suffering in the Christian Church through much of history.

When a public figure (either a religious leader or politician) begins a statement with “The Bible says….” It is almost a sure bet that what follows is NOT actually in the Bible but is a composite of several cherry-picked verses strung together with an elaborate and sometimes questionable structure of interpretation.

This is never more evident that in the public sphere today. When a public figure (either a religious leader or politician) begins a statement with “The Bible says….” It is almost a sure bet that what follows is NOT actually in the Bible but is a composite of several cherry-picked verses strung together with an elaborate and sometimes questionable structure of interpretation. The Rube Goldberg structure and mechanizations that connect the cherry-picked verses always seems very suspicious to me. When recently Franklin Graham held a news conference to pronounce that the “Bible says that life begins at conception,” I came close to apoplexy, because it just isn’t true – and thirty years ago evangelical Christians were adamant that the Roman Catholic position on conception was completely unscriptural. I still have old issues of Christianity Today to prove it. In fact, most people today are unaware that the current Catholic position on the “beginning of life” only dates from 1869, prior to which there was a complex Augustinian theory of “ensoulment” at quickening, but that’s all another story!

In many ways the Moravians (back to the Unitas Fratrum of the 15th century) are the first “Red-Letter Christians” because we have always held the actual words of Christ as reported in the Gospels to be of the highest authority and concentration. Dr. Atwood puts it succinctly that “Jesus is the lens.” We must understand all of Scripture through the revelation of the Word of God, which (gasp) is not the book we call the Bible; the Bible itself says that Jesus Christ is the Logos, the Word of God. To believe in the Word is to believe in the person of Christ.

Some of the folks in the early Unity agreed among themselves to live according to the Beatitudes, a difficult thing in a violent world, and referred to themselves as “Brethren of the Law.” We currently have an intentional Christian community, Anthony’s Plot, which is seeking to hold to the same very difficult standard.

Moravians have always viewed the divisions between denominations as an evidence of human sinfulness, and take seriously the words of Christ in John 13:35 “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” We regard hostile argumentation that divides relationships over “non-essential” issues as being a violation of this principle, and believe that each individual must make up their own mind about issues that are not made clear – by which we mean MANIFESTLY clear – in the Bible. As you might imagine, we have had never-ceasing internal struggles about what is “essential” and what is “non-essential.”

Historically, Luke of Prague differentiated between that which was ESSENTIAL to salvation (the love and grace of God, the life and sacrifice of Jesus), that which was MINISTERIAL to salvation (Scriptures, sacraments) and that which as ACCIDENTAL to salvation (Language, style of music, etc.). Later the motto that we use today was elaborated by Peter Meldenius and adopted by Moravian Bishop John Amos Comenius: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty, in all things love.” This is very similar to an expression used by some other denominations, “we speak where the Bible speaks, and are silent where the Bible is silent.”

I have often oversimplified this (some of our theologians and historians would argue detail but would agree with the underlying thought) by asking “what are the areas that ALL Christians through history have agreed upon?” As a shorthand answer, this very small list could be regarded as the likely “essentials..” We hold up the simplest creed “Jesus is Lord” as the basic one, and while we use the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed, we use the Eastern version of the Nicene Creed previous to the filioque dispute. The things that we disagree about thus sort of automatically migrate to the “non-essentials” bin unless we can establish with clarity that the Lord Himself taught it specifically and clearly.

Dr. Atwood says that he does not find the Meldenius motto to be very helpful because people think that the “non-essentials” are unimportant or arbitrary. He is right about this; and that is why when I teach about this motto I always include teaching about Luke of Prague’s version, which is actually a bit more helpful. Dr. Atwood feels that a better understanding of the core beliefs of the Moravian Church are collected in statement called The Ground of the Unity, which is available online HERE.

We speak where the Bible speaks, and are silent where the Bible is silent.

In today’s politicization of religion, I believe that the many Scriptural commands (OT and Jesus’ parables) regarding care of the poor and the downtrodden, and God’s wish for justice have been swept aside by political agenda and ignored or reinterpreted when the meaning is manifestly and plainly clear; and obscure passages that support a particular political agenda are used as weapons. Most of the current discussion spends huge energy and time on things that are NOT made clear or which are minor issues in the Scriptures. Again, if a statement begins “the Bible says…” and what follows is a Rube Goldberg contraption of cherry-picked verses connected with questionable interpretation, then it’s not going to be a Moravian essential!

A great example would be the Scofield Bible, which teaches a complex interpretive theology of dispensationalism, a relatively new idea, which seems to me to be “finding a button and sewing a vest onto it.” Unfortunately, this century-old complex theology drives a lot of belief today (“Left Behind,” etc.) even though it would have seemed utterly foreign and wrong to the apostles. However, a large proportion of American Christendom sees Scripture through this interpretive glass, and is historically illiterate about Apostolic practices and understanding – as they are about how many other current common beliefs developed in the Middle Ages.

A particular example is our approach to Holy Communion, which is an ideal example since it has divided so many denominations. The Scriptures do not explain what communion means, or speak explicitly about exact practice. However, Jesus commands us to share in the experience without elaborating on it. So the Moravian Church permits individuals to make up their own mind about the understanding of communion (transubstantiation, consubstantiation, memorial) and leaves that to the individual believer – the only requirement being that no individual condemn another’s understanding of the meal. We have never taught transubstantiation or that it is a mere memorial meal. We have developed a particular traditional practice of serving communion which is somewhat unique (wafers and grape juice in individual cups, the pastor brings the elements out into the pews and serves each person individually, but then all partake together). The service is made up of hymns that are thematic for the service, and the pastor says the words of institution from the Scriptures without elaboration or explanation. All practices of serving are permissible (intinction, the use of wine in a common chalice and a loaf of bread, etc.).

Similarly, Jesus commands us to baptize but does not explain it further. Therefore, we also baptize in all forms without elaboration as to what it means or discrimination as to how it is done – the one exception being that baptism involves entry into the congregation, and a covenant on the part of the congregation to love and support the person being baptized, so baptism must be in the presence of the congregation. It is not seen as a “christening” that is done in a home or privately. We accept infant baptism in part because it was a widespread practice already; it could be argued that the Baptists are right about the form of baptism since we do not accept the medieval theology that drove the original development of infant baptism, and all the examples in the Bible are clearly immersion of adults. However, we accept all forms of baptism so long as they are not used as statements to denigrate other forms; and Moravians now see infant baptism as a sign of the New Covenant, and a recognition that the spiritual life does not begin at age 13 or some other arbitrary point.

NEXT: An example of interpretation using Jesus as the “Lens.”